By Lionel Bopage and Michael Cooke –
Venezuela: Is it reminiscent of socialist suffering in Sri Lanka? A response to Mr Mano Ratwatte’s article
Mr Mano Ratwatte’s article provides little historical, cultural or political evidence for his erroneous contentions. He is more interested in point scoring. All he provides to buttress his case is two messages from Venezuela about their crisis. This leads him to bemoan the tragedy of a ‘once prosperous nation in Latin America’. The above testimony, he says, is ‘far better than expert commentaries about socialism and global imperialism from Sri Lanka’.
Also evident is his distaste for the economic policies of the 1970 United Front (UF) government, concluding with the contention that it is the poorer classes who suffer most from the state’s largesse, as a state-controlled economy is both incompetent and corrupt. What follows is a refutation of these contentions.
The second letter that Mr Ratwatte refers to was written in 2014. It gives us some idea of who its author is – a student activist from a middle-class and affluent background who writes breathlessly that he has been ‘very busy’ finding tires, wires and gas to burn tonight on the streets. He also states that there are armed groups on motorcycles shooting at protestors and that many of the police have been replaced by the Cuban military*. The reality, Mr Ratwatte, is much more complex and bloodier. When Maduro legitimately won the 2013 elections, this enraged the opposition, who tried to destabilise the government.
With no evidence they alleged election fraud and called their supporters out onto the streets, included the author of the letter. These demonstrations became violent. Student protestors were not only building barricades but also made the protests lethal, with around 40 deaths, the vast majority of the dead being Chavistas and government employees, not student protestors like the letter writer. It was and still is not unusual to see young male protestors armed with truncheons and other deadly implements laying into the opposition. Mr Ratwatte, did you check the bona fides of your correspondent. Did he engage in violent attacks on his opponents? If not, does he know who did? Is he prepared to name the killers so they can be charged for their crimes? Until he clarifies his role in the lethal 2014 demonstrations against government supporters his views are suspect.
A replay of this is happening now in Venezuela. In the May 2018 presidential election in Venezuela, Maduro was re-elected as president with 68 percent of the vote with a voter turnout of 46 percent. The percentage of eligible voters who voted for Maduro was 31.7 percent. Compare this with the US President Trump who received only 27.3 percent of the vote and an even lower 26.8 percent for the Prime Minister of Canada Trudeau. Maduro was sworn in as president for the second constitutional term on January 10 of this year. It is this democratic will of the people that the opposition and their allies from the United States cannot countenance.
This is not surprising given the turbulent history of Latin America and Venezuela. Many of the commercial, military and political elite in the United States see those countries as their backyard, where they can do as they will. The U.S. incensed by the popular measures undertaken by the Chavez government has been constantly meddling; the most blatant intervention was its support to the 2002 right wing coup that was thwarted by the Venezuelan people. The ex-president Barack Obama’s executive order in 2016 declared that Venezuela is a “rare and extraordinary threat to US national security and foreign policy.” Harsh sanctions were imposed the day after Venezuelans re-elected Maduro for a second term in the May 2018 election. These sanctions, similar to the ones against Cuba, block access to medicines, food and other important items and interfere with trade. These sanctions stop payments and freeze financial assets of the Venezuelan government.
Likewise, the capricious and petulant nature of the current President of the United States should not obscure the fact a number of his senior advisors, like Bolton, Pompey and the current appointee on Venezuelan affairs Elliot Abrahams, have a murky record of supporting anti-democratic forces in South and Central America. Bolton went on TV and said, “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” Naked brutal U.S imperialism once again. The U.S has seized PDVSA assets worth 7 billion U.S. dollars. Bolton estimated the sanctions would block $11 billion in revenue to the Venezuelan government over the next year. In addition to these illegal U.S. sanctions, the Bank of England has withheld 1.3 billion worth of Venezuelan gold. The Trump administration claims that the sanctions “are expected to block $7 billion in assets and result in $11 billion in export losses over the next year for Venezuela’s government.” According to Latin American Geopolitical Strategic Centre (CELAG), the previous economic sanctions have cost Venezuela approximately $350 billion in the production of goods and services in the period 2013 to 2017.
Venezuela, when ruled by its middle class, was never a paradise. It was country of haves and have nots, with the well-to-do spending their holidays in Florida, shopping to their hearts’ content and coming back to a politically ‘stable’ country, knowing that the economy, the government sector, the military and the educational institutions were safe for them to exploit. Then Chavez and his movement appeared on the scene, winning election after election and bringing the forgotten and the downtrodden to the centre of the country’s political, economic and cultural life. They now had access to food, housing, education. For the first time there was a media that was not dominated by the elite, and educational institutions were opened up to the children of the poor. Chavez was able to do this without infringing on the economic or political rights of the middle class and yet, after every election, there has been a paroxysm of anger and incredulity at the result, included a failed military coup, launched with the backing of the United States**. The protests were more or less a reflection of the anger of those who had been accustomed to privilege, for whom equality was felt like oppression.
It may come as a surprise to Mr Ratwatte that Venezuela, like the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is part of the capitalist world market: it has to buy and sell goods. The price of oil has collapsed and there has been an unofficial economic embargo against Venezuela. This coupled with the heavy-handed tactics of Maduro, who lacks the charm and deft touch of his illustrious predecessor, has created a political storm exploited by rioters like the letter writer, who want a return to the untenable status quo.
It is sheer nonsense to claim that the opposition has the support of around 85 to 90 per cent of the population. Venezuela’s leading pollster referring to the opposition leader Juan Guaido wrote, “These radical (extreme right-wing) leaders have no more than 20 percent in opinion polls”. There is still strong support for the government in the barrios and rural areas, and many ordinary people who are critical of Maduro and disillusioned with the government have not come out in favour of the opposition. They are skeptical of the latter’s intentions and fearful that the gains they have made in the Chavista years will be taken off them. In such a complex and volatile situation, it is very unwise to support a divided and increasingly discredited opposition, as the current United States administration is doing. It is a recipe for civil war and one that bodes well for neither side of the class and economic divide.
To return to Sri Lanka, whilst not wanting to downplay the experience of the populace during the latter years of the SLFP dominated era; to characterise SLFP policies as socialist is misleading. It leaves out much of the narrative that is still affecting the Island. It was a Sinhala nationalist government with social democratic credentials. Its economic policies were put in place, unlike the current government in Venezuela, under the auspices of the international financial community, with the approval of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In fact, western financial economic journals applauded its economic policies and the financial restraint of the more left-wing elements in the government***. The edifice collapsed because of the country failed to move its economic model beyond the Plantation Economy, with export earnings falling behind imports. This resulted in an increasingly indebted economy. Coupled with the oil crisis, the result was a recipe for economic disaster (everything Lanka bought, sold and produced was dependent on oil).
The question that should be asked is why countries with strong government sectors like West Germany and the Scandinavia were able to withstand these shocks. That is a question that is seldom posed. For all its high growth rates Sri Lanka is still highly indebted and has an economy dependent on its garment sector, tea, tourism and overseas remittances. Despite its impressive growth rates and its talented and literate population it has not been able to produce the goods it avidly consumes and needs like televisions, phones and food. In addition, the majority of the population including the affluent middle class and the rich still do not pay their fair share of taxes. It seems the Island’s economic and political elite have not been able to or even want to break out of this iniquitous cycle. On this vital economic question Mr Ratwatte’s silence is deafening. Mr Ratwatte’s simple binary exposition (capitalism good – socialism bad) has no answer to these complex economic and political questions that the country needs to address if it does not want to replicate the disastrous mistakes of the past.
*Shades of Granada, where the Reagan administration used Cubans as an excuse to invade. They found that the only Cubans there were those who were working on building an airfield. But why allow facts to get in the way of a good story?
**For a more dispassionate evaluation of the Chavista revolution and its counter reaction see Grandin, Greg, ‘Down from the Mountain’. London Review of Books, Vol: 39, No: 13, 29 June 2017, p. 9-12.
***The Tory rag The Daily Telegraph (27 October 1970) approved of their realistic economic policy, which sidestepped the key issues a socialist government would have tackled – restructuring the economy away from a Planation one and dealing the festering class issues that fuelled young Sinhalese youth at the time. Instead the economy became a job creating program of the Dias Bandaranaike (family Bandyism) clan. A restructured and fairer economy might have reduced inequity and unemployment but at the expense of those who had the most to gain from the status quo. This economic and political model is still dominant.